Cleveland Browns: Offensive line better than PFF ranking
By Joel W. Cade
The Cleveland Browns offensive line was ranked No. 21 by Pro Football Focus. However the use of analytics only tells half the story.
It is no secret the Cleveland Browns struggled last year on offense. It is easy to say the offensive struggles were due to poor offensive line play. That excuse is often employed as the default answer when no good reasons are available.
For the 2015 Browns, the offensive line did struggle greatly. In fact, given the outstanding effort out of the quarterback and wide receiver positions which exceeded expectations, it is easy to say that the offensive line let the team down. However, such an assessment would be far from reality.
Given the conditions the offensive line was asked to play under, no team would have been successful. The scheme was predictable and non-complimentary. Defenses tee-off on teams that are predictable, giving the offensive line no chance to make blocks. On top of that, Alex Mack was clearly not back to form after breaking his leg the season before.
These are things that cannot be graded. Without an account of what the schemes are and how it is supposed to be blocked, any attempts at grading an offensive line is mere guesswork. Given a balanced scheme or complementary offense, the Browns offensive line might have been graded much differently.
Going into the 2016 campaign, Pro Football Focus ranked the Browns offensive line as No. 21 in the league. Here is what was said:
"The Browns used to have one of the best offensive line’s in football as recently as early 2015, but free agency has forced the unit to take a step back. Mitchell Schwartz signed with the Chiefs, and Alex Mack is now suiting up for the Falcons. Joel Bitonio had a great rookie year that he just couldn’t replicate in 2015, while John Greco also produced his worst season of the PFF era (since 2007). While both guards can rebound and Cameron Erving could have a strong sophomore season, at the very least, they still have Joe Thomas."
Here we see the same old story of Mitchell Schwartz leaving, Alex Mack leaving and how terrible John Greco supposedly is. It is the same song and dance that has been rehearsed the entire offseason.
The problem with this analysis is that it fails to take into account the new scheme the Browns will employ next season. While it is true that center and right tackle will be unknowns for the Browns next season, a fair analysis of the Browns offensive line entering 2016 should take into account the new scheme and how personnel fit that scheme.
The power run quick passing scheme is in stark contrast to the zone run vertical passing offense the Browns tried to employ last season. The contrast is so great that a makeover at key positions was necessary.
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The loss of Alex Mack hurts, but let us be honest, everyone knew it was coming. That was why Ray Farmer drafted Cameron Erving in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft. Mack’s performance post-broken-leg was not spectacular nor did it merit the kind of contract he received from the Atlanta Falcons. They are gambling he can return to form and anchor a zone run attack. Mack is suited for the job and will be a great fit.
But he would not have been a great fit in the Browns new power run scheme. Fortunately for the Browns, Cameron Erving is a great fit. The Browns revamped the center position by both getting younger and by finding a player with scheme fit. Nonetheless, Erving is unproven and remains a question mark for next season.
The loss of Mitchell Schwartz would hurt more if the Browns were still running zone with vertical passing. But they are not. The right tackle in a power run needs to pry open holes. For how good of a zone run and pass blocker Schwartz is, he is not a right tackle in a power run scheme. He fits well with the Kansas City Chiefs offense, which passes to run the ball, and needs an effective pass blocker at right tackle.
The loss of Mack and Schwartz is overstated when scheme fit is not taken into account. Joel Bitonio is a good fit and John Greco can hold the right guard position down until his contract ends. The right tackle position is up for grabs but the Browns have a plan with Alvin Bailey and Shon Coleman.
Yes, the Browns look like the No. 21 ranked offensive line when the current group is fit into last year’s offensive scheme or no specific scheme at all.
This does not mean that when taking the power run scheme into account the Browns will have an amazing offensive line. No, there are questions for the Browns at center, right guard and right tackle. Such is the case when in rebuilding mode.
What Pro Football Focus does is excellent. I am “all-in” with analytics in the NFL. Yet, one has to recognize the limitations of scheme fit and assignment ignorance when it comes to grading NFL players and offensive lines as a group.
Numbers can tell an amazing story. But it is only half the story. For the whole story, one has to employ analytics in the service of offensive and defensive schemes. Only when the whole story is told will analytics be truly useful in the NFL.
Next: Browns Camp Preview: Right Tackle
So far, the Browns have used analytics in service of traditional football schemes. Hence, the future is bright in Cleveland despite having Pro Football Focus’ No. 21 ranked offensive line.